TERRE HAUTE —
A duo of Indiana State athletes are wreaking havoc on the school-record 8,000-meter time in men’s cross country. It’s a bit of a friendly rivalry that coach John McNichols welcomes.
Senior Al Escalera held the record for just two weeks after running a time of 24 minutes, 5 seconds at the Notre Dame Invitational on Sept. 28. Escalera and John Mascari broke the previous record of 24:17 set by Jason Gunn on Oct. 16, 1999. The Terre Haute North grad known by his friends and family as “Big John” ran a 24:11.
Mascari took control of the top spot in the record books this past Saturday at the Pre-Nationals race in Louisville, Ky.
Mascari thinks the Sycamores’ lead pack, which also includes senior Dustin Betz, is ahead of schedule at this point in the season. As elite runners tend to approach it, the times should just keep getting faster.
“It feels pretty good. I know Al and I we broke the record at Notre Dame a couple weeks back. The goal this season was to run 23:59, just go sub 24,” Mascari said. “Once we start decreasing our mileage, maybe bumping down to 60 or 70, I think we’re going to see dramatic results. I think we’ll be good by the time postseason comes around.”
Escalera has had plenty of intrinsic drive to be great since arriving at ISU out of Lafayette — he placed in the top 50 in the region as a freshman — but having the talented Mascari arrive this season has helped him.
“John being here has helped me a ton,” Escalera said. “He fits in really well so it wasn’t really awkward. He sets a great example for those young guys.”
“He’s helped me just being my training partner and helping me push ourselves in those harder workouts. For sure, John and I would have a really good shot at making it. The goal is have at least two runners at nationals, maybe seven [meaning the team would qualify for the first time].”
Mascari said the veterans on the team are a big reason he’s enjoyed jumping in with the Sycamores after spending last year as a redshirt at IU.
“It’s an honor working with him and Betz. They’re the best leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Al’s put in 100-mile weeks all summer and throughout the entire season. He’s got a lot left in him,” Mascari said. “Betz is the verbal senior leader. He trains really hard and Al just leads by example, which I’ve needed.”
As previously noted, Escalera has been a big-time impact runner for the Sycamores since his freshman year. But McNichols has watched im peak as a recently-turned 21-year-old senior this fall.
“He’s had a major drop, about 45-50 seconds of his previous best,” McNichols said. “Likewise with Betz. Part of that is the courses we’re running on. We’ve been on fast courses this year. Also, it’s just that accumulation of work they’ve put in. It helps throwing John in the mix. So there’s three guys running really fast workouts, it helps all of them. Al’s been a good racer all along. He came in as a freshman and helped our team right away. He earned that as the season went along.”
Escalera, like other seasons, set the tone for his fall during the hot summer months. He’s stuck around Terre Haute the past two summers to train at over 100 miles per week most of the time.
“That’s the biggest reason I’ve stayed, just because there’s a lot of cool places to run [around Terre Haute],” Escalera said. “The wetlands is huge, I run there pretty much every day in the summer. For cross country, you have to have a really big, really good summer. You have to lay down the foundation in the summer, you can’t really make up ground during the season.”
The Pre-Nationals — one of the most competitive races during the season as far as the depth of the field but not the best or deepest in recent years — was different for Escalera this year. It was the first time it was not on his home course. The Pre-Nats and NCAA Championships are in Louisville this season before returning to Terre Haute and LaVern Gibson in 2013.
“I’ve only raced at LaVern for Pre-Nats. But it was cool. I like waking up in a strange bed and get in the race mindset. I enjoyed the course, maybe just because it was something different,” Escalera said.
The goal is obviously to get the team into the NCAAs for the first time. What Pre-Nats told Escalera is they have the talent to do so but there has to be steady improvement.
“I think pretty much what it showed was our No. 4 and 5 runners have to continue to improve,” Escalera said. “They’ve been doing a great job of running faster, they just have to continue to do that. What I’ve been telling them, is if we can get our 4 and 5 in 24:30 shape, we’ll have a really good shot.”
The No. 4 and No. 5 runners this season have been Terre Haute South grad Taylor Head and fellow redshirt freshmen Tristan Selby and Gabe Ocasio. Head was the only Sycamore not to PR on Saturday.
“That’s really been the way it’s looked all year, and we’re not the first team to have that situation,” McNichols said. “We have young guys, redshirt freshemen, that we’re counting on in that 4th, 5th and 6th positions. There is a developmental aspect to this. As it’s turned out, each has had a great race. Taylor has been a consistent No. 4, Gabe Ocasio stepped up and Tristan ran well. We have the guys that can do it, and they’re knocking their times down. They’re all right there at that 25-flat range, and not many years ago that was pretty darned good. Everybody’s running so darned fast right now.”
Mascari can see those guys stepping up when it counts, which will be at the region meet.
“I think we’re ranked 8th in the region, but at this point that doesn’t matter, all that matters is what we do at regionals,” Mascari said.
But up next for the Sycamores is the MVC Championships, where they’ll go for the seventh team title in the past nine years. Southern Illinois has won the other two, and the Salukis are the biggest competition again.
“It just works out that way, at least it has for the past decade. We’re looking at Southern Illinois and us,” McNichols said. “We’ve won six of the last eight championships, runner-up and third in the the others. We won one year by one point. This year is lining up to be about the same. It should be very, very ineteresting. I don’t see any way to call it.”